Monthly Archives: April 2010

Fresh Garlic, Fresh Writing and a Winner

While working on a major project for our church, I had the wonderful opportunity to strike up conversations with dozens upon dozens of people I had never conversed with before.  One of the hot topics became cooking.

Hands down, my favorite ingredient is fresh garlic.  A clove or three, minced and sauteed in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, can push  a tasty dish to the next level. 

One of the ladies (who is an amazing  cook with over 50 years experience in the kitchen) claimed she had NEVER used fresh garlic to cook with.  EVER.

That confession  was akin to blasphemy in my book. 

But it got me thinking.  Writing is like cooking.  We get stuck in a rut.  We cook the same dishes over and over again because we know our families will eat them.  We use the same ingredients and cook them in the same ways, never venturing too far out of the box for fear that our kids will turn their noses up and our spouses will no longer declare us Top Chef.

When we write, we tend to fall into the same patterns.  Our MC’s are of similar ages with the same fundamental personality traits.  We strike up boy/girl relationships, throw in a conflict or two and add a bully for good measure.

In essence, we cook up a story using the same ingredients.

Our job is to keep our writing fresh.  We need to strip our manuscripts of the canned phrases and salted story lines.  We need to give up on processed plots and go with the freshest ingredients available to us.

Instead of changing our fifteen year-old, female’s hair color from blonde to auburn and making her two inches taller, we need to infuse our MC with a flavor all her own.  She may pick her cuticles until they bleed when she’s nervous.  She might have a habit stepping over every crack in the sidewalk because she truly believes the old childhood ditty–even though she doesn’t believe in anything else.  She might have a touch of OCD.

Whatever the case, we need to write outside the box. 

What happens when the requisite love triange includes a same-sex friendship instead of two hot hunks?  What if the bully is the scrawny, smart kid instead of the lumbering idiot?  What happens when it’s the spouse who has committment issues instead of the detective?

These are small changes–a bit like adding fresh garlic instead of garlic powder–yet they can have a big impact on how our characters act and react.  In essence tiny details can change the entire flavor of a story. 

They can also make the difference between another formulaic storyline or the fresh manuscript that agents and editors are clammering to bite into. 

What do you have cookin’?  What are the most commonly used “ingredients” in your writing?  Can you tweak them in a fresh way to enhance your story as a whole? 

After writing this, I realized my bullies are so yesterday: the petite, cute cheerleader and the blundering idiot.  It is not until my NaNo YA that the bully is a braniac hottie with a penchant for misusing those around him. 

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?!?!?

And so, I shall heed the words of wisdom written by successful authors before me, including Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman. 

I hope Lisa finds something useful too.  Lisa Gibson posted the winning comment for my Slumber Party Bash contest.  For her awesome entry and great party idea she will receive a copy of Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents.

If you have never visited Lisa’s blog, you should do so today.  Her blog is one of peace and inspiration.  Thanks, Lisa!


Just What the Doctor Ordered

Yesterday our geriatric lab made a trip to the vet due to a severe limp.  She had reinjured her shoulder while playing catch on Sunday and by Monday morning she could barely walk.  She needed a refill of her pain meds and her steroids to keep the swelling down.  Today she is a different dog.

My manuscripts get that way sometimes. 

During an edit I can take out too much or tinker around in all the wrong ways until I nearly cripple my story, forcing me to start all over again. 

But that’s the beauty of editing.  With our wonderful technology, we can play around with each draft until we find what works. 

It’s like a quick trip to the vet clinic.  When something doesn’t achieve our desired results, we try a new prescription. 

Have you ever tinkered too much with a manuscript and had to start over again?  What elements do you find yourself most likely to over-edit?  Or not edit enough? 

Do you use beta readers to help diagnose your problem areas or do you self prescribe?

Happy editing!

Droppings of Various Kinds

I just finished reading the newest Alex Rider book and loved every second of it.  Anthony Horowitz has done it again–even better.  And  yet as I read, one thing stuck out in my writer’s mind.  A reference to Obama. 

Authors might use major events to ground their work in a certain time period while others use trends or slang to add authenticity.  Music is another popular reference that helps readers relate to the setting and characters.

I’ll call these instances “droppings”.

Much like the mouse droppings that littered our garage for our annual spring cleaning.  In past years, I’ve seen a dropping or two in expected locations.  However, this year, our garage appears to have housed not one rodent, but an entire colony of them.

They had “dropped” more than enough clues for us to realize our geriatric lab hadn’t really been eating all $52.00 worth of dog food each month.  Instead, we had provided our furry little guests with an all-inclusive winter resort while our poor canine suffered through hunger pangs. 

And so I got to thinking.  I’m okay with one or two droppings.  Really, life does go on, even for tiny little field mice looking to snug down during our near-arctic cold fronts. 

One or two are virtually unobtrusive.  These droppings ground us in the reality that our garage is not mouse proof, that there are more creatures in this world than us and that we must share a certain amount of our resources with others less fortunate.

But more than a dropping or two and I get a whole lot of grouchy.  Namely because I can’t ignore them and have to sweep them up.  Which, by the way, I don’t recommend doing in flip flops, as the droppings tend to get stuck between your toes.  Everything has to be moved, burned disinfected and put back in a more orderly fashion.

Kind of like editing. 

One or two references per novel is enough to ground us in the reality of setting, character and time frame.  They are a nice addition to any book.  However, an entire novel littered with references becomes tedious and might make the average reader a whole lot of grouchy, as if they have mouse droppings between their toes.

Some genres demand more droppings than others, like historical fiction.  Others seem to sprinkle droppings around just for fun and the novel feels like an all-inclusive at one of the poshest, dunce camps on earth–as if the author is trying to impress the reader by name-dropping, but the reader is too stupid to pick up on it. 

What I took away from Crocodile Tears is that one reference is enough.  By including an Obama tid-bit in the book, it indicated a current or post-presidency time frame.  The use of Trafalgar Square grounded me in the setting without beating me over the head–and I’ve never been there.  An i-pod gave me insight to the characters.

Anything more and I would have started skipping pages.  And that is the last thing any writer wants to happen.  Because dropping a reader’s attention is the worst kind of dropping imaginable. 

As a reader, do you get distracted by too many real-life references or do you need them to help you visualize the book better?

As a writer, what types of droppings do you tend to leave in your manuscripts?  Do you over-use some or not use them enough? 

P.S. I will cull my comments today and name the winner of my Slumber Party Bash contest tomorrow!  Thanks for playing.


I apologize for being out of the blogosphere.  Unforseen circumstances have kept me busier than expected.  If you’re new to my blog, feel free to look through my archives.  For those true-blue followers, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled posting on Monday.

Thanks for your patience.

New Beginnings

There’s been enough blog talk about great beginnings that we writers should instinctively know how to create a gripping beginning.  One that lets us connect with our MC.  Doesn’t introduce too many characters too quickly.  Keeps us grounded in the moment.  Has no mention of weather.  Lacks boring dialogue.  Doesn’t start with the single most exciting event of the book which will make the remainder dry in comparison.

Sheesh, the rules are endless and concise.  And yet as I weeded my garden, pulling out the debris from last year and letting my spring sprouts poke through to the light, I couldn’t help but give my new manuscript the wrong opening sentence.  Over and over and over again.

My professor told us the sun always rose in the east.  Always. 

Ugh.  I didn’t need the opening line of a YA to start with an old geezer pontificating about science.  Kids hate that.  They get lectured enough in school.  I tugged a dead stem and mulled the sentence over in my head. 

The sun always rose in the east.  Until today.

Ach, I didn’t want my readers to really think the sun didn’t rise.  I just wanted them to question that the foundation of our lives may not be as predictable and true as it seems.  I kept pulling the winter-dry leaves of my iris, searching for a hint of new growth underneath.  I did the same with my idea, carefully shearing away the brittle wording so as not to disrupt a new sprout.

When my boyfriend told me he loved me, I believed him.  But that was yesterday.  Today…

Lame-o.  That could be a thousand different storylines, and I hated the whiney feel of this sentence.  My MC is ego-centric.  Not a whiner.  She’s a fighter whose whole life changes in the blink of a night.

I needed to put my MC in the forefront.  Let her tell her story, not hint around to the rest of the world.  She’s ego-centric.  And she has every right to be, because until today, she’s been treated that way.  As if she’s special.

But I didn’t want all that back story.  I just needed a simplistic way to let the reader know life is no longer the same, all the while letting my MC ‘s inner spirit shine through.  Back to tugging more leaves, praying for green and tapping my mental keyboard.

Yesterday I believed the sun would always rise in the east.  I believed Cassidy when she twined her pinky around mine and promised we would be besties forever.  I believed Mom when she buttered my toast and told me I was the most important thing in the world to her, that she would lay down her life for me.  I believed the words as they spilled from Jackson’s mouth.  He loved me and would never leave me.

But that was yesterday.

Today the sun doesn’t rise at all and I feel like Jesus being denied by Peter.  Today, I don’t believe anything.

Knowing me, I’ll tweak this beginning to death, but for now, I think I cleared away enough debris and found the new growth underneath.  Of course, it could just be me.  I do that often enough with my writing.  Seeing a glimmer of goodness and declaring it the most beautiful thing in the world. 

Like my iris, I will continue to nurture the spring sprouts of this new idea, pampering them and believing in them until the leaves give way to stems, stems to buds and buds to stunning blooms. 

I love new beginnings!  Now if only I remember to water this one…

Is it easy for you to write new beginnings, or do you start with a well mapped idea and struggle to put down the opening lines that will lead you to the meat of your story?

Do you have a first line or two you’ like to share?

Who Knew and a Challenge to You

I am working on a monstrously huge project right now, so after my day job today, I bellied up to the counter with a bag of left-over Easter Twix and started a web search for important days throughout the year. 

Anyone want to guess what today is?  Yeah, besides being April 7th, 2010, it is also World Health Day

Yep.  Found that out just as I slipped the last bite of gooey, caramel goodness into my mouth.

In honor of World Health, I will put the Twix away and go for a walk around the square.  This is a three mile jaunt and I should be able to get it in before dinner.  If I get my behind in gear.

But before I leave, I challenge you to do something out of the ordinary regarding your health.  Go for a walk.  Forgo the after dinner drink.  Eat a salad.  Throw the chips in the trash or sprint down the block.

In addition, I challenge you to give your favorite villian a conscience.  Tell us the villian you love to hate and what he/she would do to honor this day of health.

I choose Professor Snape to indulge in a hand to hand dragon fighting match–sans magic.

MC Slumber Party Bash

Friend, fellow writer and reading fanatic, Lisa Gibson, gave me an idea.

Sometimes when we finish a book, we feel tied to the MC’s like besties.  We admire them for their awesome-possum personalities or near super human abilities.  We imagine what they will do after “the end” and would give just about anything to read one more page.  Just to keep our obsessions alive.

Well, now you get your chance.

I grant you unlimited funds, favorite MC’s as instant besties and a party to plan.  If you were to have a sleep over with your favorite literary characters, what would that party look like? 

  • Guest List (up to six)
  • Location/Time
  • Food
  • Games
  • Invitation Blurb

And to up the ante, I shall proclaim this a contest.  All you have to do is follow these simple steps by this Friday–April 9th:

  1. Comment about your party plans.
  2. Pass this contest along via your favorite social media preference, or…
  3. …blog about it.  Even a tiny snippet will do.  If you don’t have a blog, two seperate social media blurbs will suffice.  PS: don’t forget to include a link to this post.
  4. Shoot me an email at listing the links to where you spread the joy about the amazing MC Slumber Party Bash Contest.
  5. Lastly, feel free to subscribe to my blog–at least long enough to find out if you won.

For your efforts, I will randomly draw a number from a hat and pronounce the commenter with a matching digit as Slumber Party Royalty.  In addition to your virtual crown and undying loyalty, said Royalty will receive a copy of Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman.

That’s it.  So get planning…

Oh wait, just one more rule.  All characters must have their own sleeping bags.  After all, I do write for kids!

The Not-So-Perfect Character

It was a dark and stormy night.

Okay, not stormy, but dark.  All shades of dark, actually, when I read the last words on Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  I won’t lie to you, this isn’t a book for the casual reader.  It has zombies–the Unconsecrated–who roam the land and feed off the flesh of living humans. 

I started at 8:00pm while my youngest wept his way through Harry and the Hendersons.  I closed the back cover shortly after midnight and flicked off the basement light to make my way upstairs.

Immediately, I was plunged into total blackness.  The tiny orange rectangle outlining the light switch did nothing but beckon me to flip it back on.  Instantly, the hairs on the back of my neck fluffed up like a German Shepard’s scruff. 

Reality is that Miss Ryan’s book wasn’t scary at all while I read it.  Not one iota.  Nor do I believe in zombies in any way shape or form.  And truly, if they are as shufflingly slow as they are portrayed across media in general and this book in particular, I had nothing to fear.  Even if they were real.  Sheesh, I could outwalk them on a good day. 

And yet, this knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to sprint up the stair to my DH slumbering in bed.  Rather than give in to it, I forced myself to walk up each step.  It didn’t help that the night was cloudy with no moon or stars spilling through the windows.  The pitch black played right into my zombie induced imagination.  A feat worthy of noting since I am not easily spooked.

Which makes me believe that Miss Ryan did something right.  Even after closing the pages of her book, her characters stayed with me.  And not just the Unconsecrated.  While brushing my teeth (safely in the bathroom with DH between me and the zombies), I couldn’t let go of the MC. 

She was an anomaly to me.  At times brave, yet selfish.  She was motivated by the haunting memories of her beloved mother’s childhood stories.  Even as death and desctruction ripped through the tiny band of survivors, she pushed on.  Even when love…well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling the book. 

I don’t even know if I like Mary.  Yet she was so well fleshed out: such a contradiction of actions, so truly a teen in distress living for herself and something bigger than herself all at once.  She was real.  More real than the zombies who followed me upstairs.  More real because she wasn’t perfect.

Most of the time I like the MC’s of my favorite books.  Nay, I love them.  Not so with Mary.  Instead, I felt a deep connection with her and her drive to believe, to hope, to dream.  Her ability to push forward against insurmountable odds.  Her strength in motivating others to follow.

We would not be friends in real life, me and this Mary.  She is far too selfish.  And yet, I would respect her and her ability to throw herself in the middle of a dark and stormy night.  Zombies be damned.

As a reader, have you ever run across a character you don’t like, but connect with anyway?  What makes a good character?

As a writer, have you ever written an MC you don’t like?  If so, why?  And more importantly, how?  How do you pen an entire novel about a character you would not invite to your slumber party?

And for everyone: what value is there in not glamming up the MC? 

I, for one, get tired of the cliched characters.  The beautiful.  The smart.  The perfect size six and the uber-buff surfer dude in a suit.  The MC’s that are more wonderful than I will ever be who just seem a little down on their luck for the sake of a story. 

Whether Miss Ryan intended for Mary to be a bit selfish or not, it worked.  The companion book now calls to me from my night stand.

Easter Wishes

Today we are spending a fun afternoon with good friends.  The temp is nice, the sun is shining and we have a breakfast bread in the oven.

Life is good.

Hope your day is filled with love and happiness.

A Swift Kick in the IE-OCD

This morning my DH asked what I planned to accomplish today.  Without thinking, I said, “I would like to get out two submissions.”

“Let’s get it done.”  DH settled in next to me and my computer.  He leafed through a golf mag, oblivious to what he was getting into.  Oblivious to the fact that he was initiating a task I had been putting off for weeks months. 

I am a perfectionist when it comes to querying.  And yet, no writing is ever perfect, not even with critique groups and beta readers.  Completed manuscripts still need tweaked or totally rewritten once an agent or editor is on board with the project.  Even with editorial departments and galley proofs, typos and other mistakes make their way into published books.

Nothing is ever perfect in writing.  But by golly, I was trying.

DH riffled through his mag twice, heaved half a dozen sighs and tried to give me some management advice on saving appropriate files for each of my completed manuscripts.  He may have been raedy to beat me with his golf magazine a tad bit frustrated by the fact that I was searching an AQ thread for my dissected query last spring.

“But you don’t understand,” I wailed.  Yes, I actually wailed.  One hour later and 250 words in, I was frustrated by my lack of the perfect query letter.  “I have 300 words to sell this idea.  Three hundred.”


I attempted to put it in his terms.  “If you had to sell a tractor in 300 words, which ones would you use?” 

“Here’s my tractor, here’s how much it costs.  Now buy it.”

Talk about economy.  I’ve never seen an eleven word query letter before.  Nor was I satisfied with his version, even though he was fundamentally right.  Here’s my book, this is what it’s about.  Now rep it.  Please.  Let us not forget the please.

I struggled some more.  DH snatched up one version.  “What’s wrong with this?”

Everything.  Yet I couldn’t possibly explain the anxiety that went into perfecting those sparse paragraphs.  They had to be PACKED with goodness to have an agent request the manuscript.  They were all I had.  I read him a slightly different version–one with four changed sentences. 

“Oh, yeah.  I like that one much better.”

And that’s when it dawned on me.  I have IE-OCD.  My Internal Editor knows full well that there is always a better version.  It refuses to quit tinkering.  It refuses to approve.  It refuses to give me permission to take that next step.  So I don’t.  I read and reread.  I compulsively change one or two words.  I let my queries simmer.  And I wait for my Internal Editor to tell me that I am finally done.  That all is good. 

This morning my DH gave my IE’s OCD a swift kick in the rear.  With his golf club.  “It’s just a five iron, Baby.  You’re a hundred and eighty yards out.”

Now, I’m not obsessed with golf like he is, but I know he was telling me to relax and swing.  To let it go.

I did.  I hit send, fought the impulse to call my queries back and walked away.  DH may not read often, but he’s got the real world figured out.  And so I leave you with his words of encouragement:

“It’s just a five iron.  You’re a hundred and eighty yards out.” 

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten to kick your Internal Editor’s rear?